I know how eagerly you are looking forward to your son’s Bar-Mitzvah. I know with what a sense of fulfilment you will see him stand before the Sefer Torah and declare himself a Jew.
I am sure that when that moment comes you will both echo the traditional Shehecheyanu blessing praising God “who has kept us in life, and preserved us, and enabled us to reach this day.”
I, too, look forward to the great day: I look forward to having the privilege of guiding your son through the ceremony, addressing him from the pulpit and invoking upon him the blessing of God.
I am as keen as you are that everything should go well. And that is what is behind this letter.
I want to suggest to you, if I may, some of the things that will help to turn the Bar-Mitzvah day into a really moving and meaningful event.
The first thing is that in everything to do with the Bar-Mitzvah you should provide a good example. You are your children’s most important model. If you hardly ever attend Synagogue, and keep little of Judaism at home, then neither you nor your son will feel properly at ease on this red-letter day.
He will be shouldering a certain amount of extra work and study in preparation for his Bar-Mitzvah. May I suggest that you do likewise – that you use these weeks and months to strengthen your own Jewish knowledge and renew your own commitment to the Synagogue and to Jewish living?
By all means come quietly to me, if you wish, and I will give you every ounce of help and advice that I can.
You will find that our Bar-Mitzvah regulations require more than the mechanical performance of a boy’s parashah. Whether or not he sings it like Caruso means little, because the odds are that he will have forgotten it before long. But by combining with the parashah a good, intelligent presentation of general Jewish knowledge, something really challenging and exciting will remain with your son throughout his life.
Your boy will be taught to put on tefillin. If you, the father, lay tefillin every day, there will be no problem. But if you do not, it is still vital that you do not show resentment or impatience with what your boy is being taught. Don’t shrug it off as something to be belittled or at best tolerated. If I tell your boy that tefillin is supremely important and you tell him that it is something that went out with the Middle Ages – are you really doing him such a favour?
If I can succeed in implanting a bit of faith in him, in persuading him that through tefillin he daily dedicates mind, heart and strength to the service of God and man —would you not rather have this than a son who becomes one more hard-bitten, selfish, cynical agnostic?
Why not tell your boy frankly that there are a number of Jewish observances which, for various reasons, some people including yourself have allowed to lapse – but at the same time stress that if he shows a wish to be an observant Jew you will give him every encouragement and support?
Now about the service itself. Invite your son’s views concerning which members of the family to honour with a Synagogue mitzvah. Tactfully enquire whether those who are to be called up know the Torah blessings. Tell relatives and friends to be in the Synagogue on time. Remind them that the whole occasion will be spoilt if they do not conduct themselves properly during the service, and in particular if they just sit there and talk as if it were a mothers’ meeting or a marketplace.
The paramount concern of every one of us must be to safeguard the dignity of the service, to behave as one should on the Sabbath and in the Synagogue, and not to disturb other worshippers or offend their susceptibilities.
If you are not certain as to what is or is not permitted on Shabbat – please do not hesitate to ask me.
The reception should be on a sane and sensible level. No 13-year-old boy should have to put up with a celebration to rival a Royal wedding! (The party should be remembered, as a wit has put it, for its heart – not its heartburn!) If you are fortunate to have a little money to spend, still be responsible about it. Curtail the unnecessary ostentation and lavishness.
Mark the occasion instead by a really worthwhile gift, in your son’s name, to an Israeli or a local Jewish cause. Associate your simchah with the wants of the community and give your child the kind of example he will never forget.
Realise that your Bar-Mitzvah reception should maintain the religious character of the occasion. It is a se’udat mitzvah, a religious celebration. The dietary laws should be strictly observed. And let me be frank: don’t bother to invite the ministers unless the catering is to be kosher. Make sure that the Bar-Mitzvah boy can bensch before and after the meal; give your guests booklets containing the Grace, so that they can participate in it decorously.
Above all – start planning now to see that your son continues his Jewish studies and communal involvement into the teenage and adult years and does not abandon them at precisely the moment when they can really become a challenging adventure. We have post-Bar-Mitzvah classes and youth movements in our community; give us the pleasure of welcoming your son as a member.
It is as one parent to another that I say all of this. Your children, and mine, are our own and the community’s most cherished assets. When our children were born, we were congratulated with the wish that we might rear them le-torah le-chuppah ule-ma’asim tovim, for Jewish learning and living; for a good, happy marriage in due course; and for the unceasing practice of good deeds.
It is completely within your power to turn your son’s Bar-Mitzvah into the finest and grandest milestone along the way up to the heights of those hopes.
With all good wishes,
Rabbi Raymond Apple